When Eileen Hewson was diagnosed with late stage lung cancer, she was terrified – not at the prospect of dying, but at missing out on her trip of a lifetime. For fifty years, Eileen had dreamt about travelling to remote kingdom of Mustang in Nepal and she wasn’t going to let her diagnosis stop her making it a reality.
“My life was travel, in India and the Himalaya. I was actually in Bhutan and Sikkim when I noticed what was to be my first symptom.
I had a slight cough but did not take any notice of it until one night when I coughed up a lot of blood. I knew I had to do something, and I had to do it fast.
I was sent for an x-ray. I knew it was serious when, only hours afterwards, I got a call from my GP. My right lung had partially collapsed, and I had a ‘lung mass’ – a tumour.
My first reaction was shock. This simply could not be true. Not me, I was far too healthy. I’d given up smoking 26 years ago.
Strangely, I didn’t care about the cancer; I was going to die one day anyway. I did, however, care that I would have to cancel an expedition to Nepal. I had waited fifty years for this opportunity and, in the flash of an eye, my dream was gone.
I phoned every helpline. I looked on every website, searching for a glimmer of hope. But the prognosis remained poor.
My tumour was 10.5cm in size. It was leaning on the main vein and my wind pipe. It had taken over the lymph glands and there were nodules in the left lung. It was then that I mentally started choosing the hymns for my funeral.
My oncologist proposed the following treatment: a five-day course of radiotherapy, a course of dexamethasone and two years on a trial for immunotherapy drug, Pembrolizumab.
I felt privileged that I was allowed to go on this trial at my age but, at the same time, being tied to a clinic for two years felt like a death sentence.
I looked at my age. I could not afford to wait and see what happened after the treatment was finished. I would be too old to head back to Ladakh or go on my Nepal expedition. There was no other option though; I accepted the offer of treatment but set a goal that I would return to both countries one more time – one way or another.
I started the treatment and it seemed to be working. I was slowly feeling better and this made me more hopeful. I listened to Tibetan and Indian healing music and read a book on positive thinking. Then I made up my mind – it was Mustang and India or bust, or rather die in the attempt.
My doctors were not happy, but I have one life, and nothing was going to stop me living it.Eileen was determined that nothing was going to stop her travelling, not even lung cancer.
In April 2018, I finally made it to Mustang, the journey of a lifetime. We went as high as 15,000 feet on the Nepal – Tibet border with no ill effect. No breathlessness, nothing.
I returned to the UK; my oncologist said he had never had a patient with lung cancer who had been so high. A further scan showed the cancer in my left lung had vanished and the tumour in my right lung had shrunk to 7.5cm.
Since then, I have been back to Ladakh, flying from sea level in Delhi to 12,000 feet in Leh, to see friends who I have known for 40 years. The altitude did not affect me. I spent Christmas in Sri Lanka and am planning on returning to Tibet later this year.
Learning to live with lung cancer is not easy, but it is possible. For me, it is about downgrading the disease in your head, remaining positive, exercising and staying busy.
The places I wanted to go, if they were denied to me, I was dead already. We all have to make the most of the time we have left – with or without a lung cancer diagnosis.
If Eileen has inspired you to travel, our Travelling, Going on Holiday and Lung Cancer booklet can make your holiday dream a reality.
To request your free copy, visit here or call 0333 323 7200.
Eileen shared her story as part of our Follow my Lead campaign for Lung Cancer Awareness Month 2019. Follow my Lead aims to improve conversations around lung cancer and help those affected to address and deal with a diagnosis.